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The title of this talk is 'Northern Ireland - what was the war all about?' and the first thing I'd like to say is that the subject matter under discussion is a war. We're not talking about an outbreak of criminality. Nor are we talking about a street gang going on a murder rampage. Are we talking about 'terrorism'? I have great difficulty understanding what the difference might be between 'terrorism' and 'war'. It may be that there is a sort of terrorism that isn't war but it seems to me obvious that all war is terrorism. The object of war is to terrorise an enemy into submission. And you do this by committing atrocities, i.e. by killing large numbers of people. There may have been a time when it was assumed that the large numbers of people would be young men in uniform but since the development of aerial warfare killing civilians in large numbers has become routine - a routine largely pioneered by the RAF in the Second World War. Waging war by blockade, the normal practise of the British navy, is also targeted against 'non-combatants', in this case using starvation as a weapon. When the government that kept condemning the IRA as 'terrorists' collaborated in the physical destruction of the administrative structure based in Baghdad they called their action 'shock and awe'. I can't seize a conceptual difference between the words 'shock and awe' and the word 'terror'. Though there is a difference in scale. We are talking about an operation that caused infinitely more damage and resulted in incalculably greater suffering than, say, the spectacular attack on the World Trade Centre in New York, not to mention the poor little creature, doubtless crazed by anger, who recently (March 2017) drove his car into a crowd of people on Westminster Bridge.

Perhaps terrorism is in the eye of the beholder and the best distinction to be drawn is that 'war' is terrorism we approve of - 'terrorism' is war we don't approve of.

Terrorism is really a propaganda word used to delegitimise the war waged by the enemy. It is probable that the vast majority of people in Great Britain (by which I mean England, Wales and Scotland, excluding Northern Ireland) regard the IRA as terrorists. It may be that a majority of the people on the island of Ireland - the Ulster Protestants plus people living in the Republic of Ireland - regard the IRA as terrorists. But it really doesn't matter what all those people think. As things have turned out, the people who count are the Catholics of Northern Ireland. And while of course there will be disagreements among them, they have shown generally, as a community, through the support they are giving Sinn Fein, that they believe the IRA was fighting a war on their behalf. Furthermore that their lives are better because of what the IRA did for them.

In this respect the recent funeral of Martin McGuinness is instructive. It wasn't a defiant affair. It wasn't the solemn military IRA style of funerals of the past with masked men and women shooting guns in the air, the coffin accompanied by men and women in berets and dark glasses. Nor was there anything triumphalist, deliberately provocative to their Protestant neighbours about it (the Protestants have hopefully got beyond being provoked by the appearance of a tricolour flag). It was relaxed and cheerful. Good hearted. Quite clearly the huge numbers who attended were not celebrating the life of a terrorist who had repented and become a man of peace. A friend of mine heard an interview recently with the Rt. Hon. Anthony Blair. The supposed contradiction in McGuinness's life was put to him. My friend couldn't remember Blair's exact words but the gist of it was that McGuinness was both military man and statesman. What's unusual about that? If that is reported accurately, I won't go so far as to say that Mr Blair goes up in my estimation, but he has said something sensible.

Though it still doesn't quite do justice to the situation. A military man becoming a statesman may be something quite commonplace (I think there are some 50 ex-army officers sitting in the House of Commons) but McGuinness was a butcher's boy who became a military man and statesman. He was 22 years of age when he was whisked off to London for secret discussions with the British government. He was supported by his wife Bernadette who ran a café in Londonderry. You could go there and be served your hamburger and chips by the wife of a military man and statesman. I cannot help imagining the contempt that polite, mild-mannered man must have felt having to deal with the likes of Peter Mandelson and John Reid, raking up personal fortunes for themselves as they presided over their incompetent and murderous interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Sinn Fein, the political party allied to the IRA, is now one of the governing parties of the United Kingdom and, as the only party that contests elections on both sides of the Irish border, it is a growing force in the Republic of Ireland. This would be unthinkable if the Catholics of Northern Ireland as a political community - whatever particular groups or individuals might think - saw the IRA as a bunch of criminals and thugs, or even if they saw them as misguided idealists fighting a useless war. And yet on the face of it, the IRA failed. They were fighting to break the link between Northern Ireland and the UK and for a united Ireland. But they haven't broken the link between Northern Ireland and the UK and they haven't achieved a united Ireland.

Ah, but ...

Much of what I shall be saying about the history of the Catholic community in Northern Ireland and the emergence of the IRA is based on Pat Walsh's recently published book, Resurgence(1) Talking about the relationship between the Nationalist party, the SDLP and the IRA in 1971, after the SDLP rejected the offer made by the Unionist Prime Minister, Brian Faulkner, of a share in the government of Northern Ireland, Walsh says that from that point on:

'The SDLP  would have to ride on the back of the Provos like the wren rides the eagle until it exhausts itself - leaving the wren to then attempt to fly on its own wings.' (p.166)

(1)  Pat Walsh: The Catholic Predicament in 'Northern Ireland' Vol 2: Resurgence, Belfast Historical and Educational Society, 2016.

Except that the wren that has taken over from the eagle hasn't been the SDLP but Sinn Fein. The journey isn't over. But a great deal of progress has been made.